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How a blend of science and art is improving neurological health


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Amna Nawaz: It's called neuroarts or neuroaesthetics. And a new book shows both the growth and the importance of a field that connects the arts with our health.

Jeffrey Brown visited the Johns Hopkins Medical School in Baltimore to see the progress firsthand. That's for our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Jeffrey Brown: Grooving the Bee Gees, splashing in the sea as a dolphin, taking a long look at a painting, all examples of how the arts are becoming more incorporated into medicine, and, says Susan Magsamen, of a growing understanding of how art can literally reshape or rewire our brains.

Susan Magsamen, Director, Center for Applied Neuroaesthetics: It connects different circuits, connects different systems and different mechanisms within the brain.

And what's interesting about the arts — and different art forms certainly have different attributes — is that they simultaneously work with different parts of the brain. And I think what we're seeing now is the language of the science of the arts is becoming more systematic.

Jeffrey Brown: Magsamen is co-author with Ivy Ross, vice president for design at Google, of the new book "Your Brain on Art: How the Arts Transform Us."

Susan Magsamen: The book is really very focused on understanding how our brains and bodies change on art, and how, by knowing that, we can really think about our health and well-being in ways that we might not have thought about it in the past.

Jeffrey Brown: It's a field it's been growing in recent decades.

The new book pulls together research and practice. And Magsamen offered us a day's tour of ongoing examples at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, where she directs the International Arts and Mind Lab.

Enter the Bee Gees or, rather, Dr. Alexander Pantelyat, a neurologist and himself a violinist who's studying the potential for improving memory loss experienced by Alzheimer's patients and others.

Dr. Alexander Pantelyat, Co-Founder and Director, Johns Hopkins Center for Music & Medicine: And we know that music impacts multiple networks in the brain simultaneously. Simply listening to a song can activate much of the brain at once.

And so therein lies the challenge of studying these different patterns of activation and trying to separate them. Therein also lies the promise of what music can do for people with different conditions and just for healthy aging more generally.

Woman: I will sing it for you. And if you recognize it, you can join, if you pick up the…

Man: I don't recognize it.

Jeffrey Brown: In a current study, patients receive eight weeks of twice-a-week music therapy delivered via Zoom to their homes. Before and after, they undergo a memory test and a brain MRI during which they listened to a favorite song, but also to a scrambled version of the same song.

We know music therapy helps, Pantelyat says, but not exactly how, how, for example, our brains process music. And perhaps memory networks can strengthen as they unscramble a familiar song.

Dr. Alexander Pantelyat: The other thing that we don't know is exactly what dose of music therapy, how frequently, for how long should people be exposed to the stimuli, and…

Jeffrey Brown: So, the actual application of music therapy, we could determine.

Dr. Alexander Pantelyat: Exactly.

This study is a short-term study. This is an eight-week music therapy intervention. What I really want to see next are larger studies conducted in multiple centers at the same time that take place over a longer period of time. If we do that, we will be able to see if these interventions can actually slow cognitive decline, slow memory loss. And that is really our Holy Grail.

Sandra Deluzio, Occupational Therapist: So, when he turns his head, you will have control.

Logan Giles, Patient: OK.

Jeffrey Brown: In a nearby building, another kind of creative therapy called I Dolphin, in immersive animation in which stroke and other patients suffering loss of movement become a dolphin named Bandit, with a sensor allowing them to swim freely in an eat-or-be-eaten underwater world.

In this case, Bandit was Logan Giles, a 25-year-old suffering from a neurological disorder impacting the use of his arms and legs.

Logan Giles: You can play with the dolphin. You can eat all the fish, the sharks you want. Yes, it's a really good distraction from all the stuff that's going on, because people who play are generally going through stressful times.

Sandra Deluzio: It's kind of an opportunity to leave the hospital room, leave this environment where you can't do anything, you can't get up, get down on your own, and be successful in this moment.

You're going to bring that arm up really big, big, big, big, big, hold it until you reach the top. And then, once you get there, you're going to move like that. Yes.

Jeffrey Brown: And there's more says, occupational therapist Sandra Deluzio. Researchers are hoping the therapy can help retrain the brain and limbs to aid cognitive motor skills in a noninvasive, even fun way.

Sandra Deluzio: We are breaking the glass a little bit here, because it's really a shift in what we traditionally do for patients, which is the traditional standard OT-PT and speech, which is incredibly important.

But this is different. We think that if we do higher loads of training in this early phase, that we will have better outcomes, that we can optimize neuroplasticity. But these patients are sick. And so it has to be done thoughtfully, it has to be smart, and it has to be done by the right people.

Jeffrey Brown: There's also a growing awareness of art's impact on the caregivers themselves, whether it's a short break for a bit of classical guitar, or something more formal.

Dr. Meg Chisolm, Professor of Psychiatry, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine: I think that one of the biggest problems in medicine right now is that patients don't feel recognized by their doctors as people.

But, also, there's contrast here IN what you might expect of a lion being ferocious, right?

Jeffrey Brown: And looking at, discussing, making art, says Dr. Margaret Chisolm, should be part of A medical school education.

A professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, she cites evidence that so-called visual thinking strategies help doctors see and act in new ways.

Dr. Meg Chisolm: Medical education and training is inherently dehumanizing. And so students are selected because they're able to do really well in science and math.

They aren't necessarily exposed or they don't expose themselves to the arts and humanities, where you really are exploring questions, like what it means to be human, what's the meaning of being a physician, even.

Susan Magsamen: The arts are another way to really start to think about what we need, not as a nice-to-have or a luxury, but really a have-to-have for our health and well-being.

Jeffrey Brown: That's the message Susan Magsamen and co-author Ivy Ross want to get across in their new book, and a sense of just how far the research and practice of your brain on art have come in the past decades.

Susan Magsamen: The fact that there is science that's really beginning to show the neuroplasticity, the changes in neurotransmitters, the physiological structural changes in the brain, and also the impact on the body, I think we're starting to be able to provide an evidence base.

We are really evolutionarily wired for the arts. And I think that, as the science continues to grow, I think we will have more applications and more ways to see that show up in our daily lives.

Jeffrey Brown: For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown at the Johns Hopkins University of Medicine in Baltimore.

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